On the surface, the Israeli army’s Facebook Intifada is a very 21st-century crisis.
A soldier on patrol cocks his weapon at a Palestinian youth, apparently violating the army’s rules of engagement. Other Palestinians film the encounter and upload it to YouTube, exposing the soldier to possible discipline. The soldier’s friends launch a Facebook page in solidarity. By week’s end they’ve gathered nearly 130,000 “likes” — equivalent to four Knesset seats.
The military dilemmas are painfully obvious. How, the soldier’s supporters ask, can troops maintain authority as the governing force in the territories when their hands are tied and Palestinians film every misstep — even provoke confrontation to post on the Web? The generals counter: How can the army maintain discipline when recruits with smartphones can mobilize mass protests against their commanders without ever showing their faces?
But while the army’s struggle with the Internet Age has drawn worldwide attention, the incident is forcing anguished debate over another set of questions — several sets, actually — that were previously spoken in whispers or shoved to the margins.
One set involves the experience of Israel’s enlisted soldiers, mostly teenagers, tasked with keeping order on the streets of the West Bank. The job puts them in daily contact with an increasingly hostile Palestinian population. The Facebook rebellion exposed a broad sense in the ranks that they’re not given tools to do the job, that their officers don’t understand the challenges, don’t listen and don’t provide answers.
Another set of questions involves worries within the General Staff about the changing character of the youngsters entering the military. One segment of the population is becoming more individualistic, less patriotic, less respectful of authority. Another, faster-growing segment is becoming more nationalistic, more religiously traditional, less open to the Western, universalist values on which Israel’s vaunted military code of ethics is based — and less deferential to the officers’ corps that preaches the code.
These worries have been discussed in the senior command for a decade, prompted several classified reports, and occasionally been described by retired officers in interviews, usually anonymously. Since the current crisis erupted April 27 the top brass has indicated, in broad hints and off-the-record interviews, that they think the ferment at least partly reflects the generational change.